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Pitch will be put to test in intense battle

Calcutta: If pitch-gazing was a pastime, as say star-gazing, then Indian cricket’s honchos and its followers, not to speak of the players, will win hands down.

The time and energy spent on dissecting the pitch, its contours and colour, in the lead-up to the Eden Test has probably even outshone the time dedicated by the Indians to their planning and preparations after the debacle in Mumbai.

If the focus has been directed elsewhere, it’s time to get the ‘devil’ out of their heads — a point made in unison by Kapil Dev and Sourav Ganguly during a panel discussion at a promotional on Tuesday. If Test matches were won and lost on the first day or by the outcome of the toss, then India wouldn’t have lost in Mumbai.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni almost set off a national debate by asking for rank turners from Day I after the Ahmedabad Test. Alarmingly, he didn’t climb down from his stance after the series was tied 1-1.

Make no mistake, the nature of the Eden wicket is such that it will suit the Indians’ needs. More precisely, this one seems similar to the surface on which England have struggled in Ahmedabad, low and slow. A welcome relief from the vicious turn and bounce that wrecked havoc in Mumbai.

“The wicket looks good… We will have to see how it behaves after the wear and tear… I don’t think there will be much help for the spinners initially.

“At this time of the year, fast bowlers get some swing both at the start of the play and towards the end. The fast bowlers’ role will be really crucial...” was Dhoni’s evaluation.

Alastair Cook wasn’t sure how it would behave. “Mumbai proved that a turning wicket gives both sides a chance. I’m not quite sure how this wicket will play. I don’t think it will have the bounce Mumbai had — it hasn’t got that red clay… But as reports suggest, it will turn, especially after Day III. So that brings both our excellent spinners into the game...

“It looks a good wicket. A game was played on it three weeks ago. It’s not a fresh wicket...”

If the turn in the wicket isn’t to Dhoni’s desired level from Day I, the dew is sure to be a factor. It will encourage lateral movement and the reverse swing will also come into play.

It’s unlikely that Harbhajan Singh — who missed practice because of flu on Tuesday — will play his 100th Test here. Ishant Sharma or Ashok Dinda will feature in the XI, with the former enjoying an advantage because of his experience. But the local factor could also tilt the scales in favour of Dinda.

The buzz is that Zaheer Khan is not fully fit, and if he’s forced to sit out, it could open the doors for both. Yuvraj Singh took a blow on his hand during practice, but Dhoni dismissed it as “nothing serious”.

England, too, are looking to strengthen their pace attack by including Steven Finn in place of the out-of-form Stuart Broad. Ian Bell will also make a comeback.

Cook though thinks the momentum bit will not make much of a difference. “After the first game the momentum was with India, but we managed to bounce back in Mumbai. So, don’t think it will really make a difference.”

The idea of a start earlier than the scheduled 9am has been dropped because of the dew factor. But the teams will have the option of using floodlights in case bad light sets in.

More than 11 years ago, Sourav had masterminded a turnaround at the Eden, which is now a part of the folklore in Indian cricket. The circumstances then were a little different — India had lost the Mumbai Test and were 0-1 down in the series versus Australia — to the one faced by Dhoni in this Test. But the angst and the pressure to perform were similar.

The Sourav brigade had revealed character as the Indians showed the zeal to counter challenges. Does Dhoni’s men have it in them to squash the Cooks’ new-found confidence?

Time to focus on their strengths and forget about the wicket.

TEAMS

India (likely): Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Cheteshwar Pujara, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ravichandran Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma/Ashok Dinda, Pragyan Ojha.

England (likely): Alastair Cook, Nick Compton, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Samit Patel/Jonny Bairstow, Matt Prior, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Steven Finn, Monty Panesar.

Umpires: Kumar Dharmasena & Rod Tucker. TV: Vineet Kulkarni.

Match Referee: Jeff Crowe.

Match timings: 9 am to 11 am; 11.40 am to 1.40 pm; 2 pm to 4 pm.